Chad the Fish / AP
TAIPEI, Taiwan – Back in March 2018, Chinese officials and scientists gathered in Beijing to celebrate the beginning of a new frontier in research: near space.
It is part of the airspace 60,000 to 330,000 feet above the ground, below the beginning of outer space – and historically ignored by the military, until recently.
“Strengthening the exploration and intelligence of near space, occupying the strategic heights of near space and developing emerging high-tech industries have become the focus of competition in countries around the world,” declared Xiang Libin, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Of the sciences. Xiang, an engineer who specializes in microsatellites and space technology, is also a senior officer the Beidou satellite system, China’s competitor to US-run GPS.
The research initiative will be named the Honghu Program and will focus on producing near-space technologies that “can be clearly identified, remain in place and be useful,” Xiang said. He vowed to build “my country’s first space science experiment system.”
Earlier in February, American defense officials claimed they were tracking a Chinese balloon that had flown over the continental United States for intelligence-gathering purposes. The US soon dropped the balloon, further developing diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
While it is unclear whether Honghu’s research was incorporated into the project launched by the U.S., the existence of the revised program has been linked to the importance of Chinese military officials in airships. These airships, officials and researchers say, are not only tools for surveillance or collecting weather and meteorological data, but also help China build advanced weapons, including hypersonic missiles, and are a new and important area with the US.
Near space is an emerging field
US defense officials say they believe the downed balloon was part of an aerial surveillance fleet built by Beijing and deployed in 40 countries around the world. Chinese fish suspect They have been spotted in Japan, Taiwan, India, Latin America and Hawaii in the past three years.
The visions could refer to years of Chinese state and private investment in a balloon capable of using age-old technology that flowed at fairly low speeds. such that radar systems do not immediately tag foreign objects.
China’s efforts to develop air surveillance capabilities have been inspired in part by developments in near-space technologies in other countries, including the US.
“Near space has become a new field in modern warfare,” he said Liberation Army Dailya state-run newspaper allied with the Chinese military.
Balloons float in the atmosphere up to 164,000 feet before entering outer space – the peripheral zone called near space. That altitude, roaming outer space and commercial airspace, are useful fish for fine-tuning and if not hypersonic weapons that China is developing.
Ng Han Guan/AP
“When you’re launching a ballistic missile, the meteorological data you’re releasing is probably the most important meteorological data. that you can cover. But hypersonic missiles fly low on the edge of the stratosphere at altitudes of 100,000 to 120,000 feet. The balloon gives you that data,” Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy commander and former director of operations at the then-US Pacific Joint Intelligence Center.
Their application has turned slow-moving hypersonic balloons, previously a low-tech option, into an increasingly crucial surveillance and navigation tool by Chinese military officials.
“Near-space forces have increasingly become the new friendly long-range and fast-hitting weapons, and the peace of future wars will therefore be significantly accelerated,” declared an editorial last year in the Chinese state media.
Even weather research can have military applications
The Honghu program – from the Chinese name for “fire” – is one key way China has tried to promote its high-tech technology.
Researchers at the Honghu Program in Beijing, a laboratory for quantitative remote sensing, have focused their efforts on developing materials that are still strong enough to prevent gas leaks at such high altitudes to improve the limits of blimps’ control capabilities.
“There is no effect of air convection in the near distance, so it is difficult to control,” Chinese military commentators noted.
Over the next two years, scientists associated with the project will conduct six experiments bringing fish from the northern province of Qinghai, elevated on the Tibetan Plateau, which extends into the province. The experiments were designed to collect atmospheric and wind data as well as ground data from the balloons based on the state of the instruments.
Much of that research appears to be purely scientific, from papers and patents published by near-space researchers, according to Beijing’s claim that the US air-launched a civilian research balloon. Yet even simple meteorological data can have military applications, analysts say, collected at a fraction of the cost of operating a satellite.
“Possess is one way to do what the U.S. military calls the kill chain. It needs all kinds of steps to find the target, receive information for hypersonic missiles, and give updates to the missiles,” he says. William Kim, a Washington-based consultant, thinks the pool is a marathon initiative.
This led the Chinese government to bring in private players as well. Less than a week after the US launched a Chinese balloon from the sky, the US Commerce Department imposed sanctions on six Chinese entities “for their support of China’s military modernization, specifically the aerospace program of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) including airships and balloons. Materials and related parts.”
Four of the six private enterprise companies were founded or run by just two men: Wu Zhe, an aerospace engineer and professor, and Wang Dong, a technology investor.
“Beijing’s own civil-military fusion program certainly seeks to bring in more private companies, mainly because I think the Chinese government has seen more new and improved capabilities than what their state-owned enterprises have been able to do in the past.” says Matthew Turpin, who served as a top China expert in the Trump White House administration.
Wu’s online biography shows a curriculum first built in the public sector, teaching at Beihang University, a state aeronautical institute now sanctioned by the US government for its military ties. He later became a member of the Chinese Army General Armaments Department.
In 2015, Wu struck out on his own, founding an aerospace company to develop what he called “near vehicles.” we can understand In 2019, one of his companies successfully orbited a silver globe, a high-altitude blimp.
This private innovation appears to have been driven in part by geopolitical rivalry with the United States. Published documents from Chinese government-affiliated research bodies closely monitor private companies and US technology, including SpaceX, and measure domestic progress in near-space research with these companies.
“First of all, near-aircraft are different from satellites and airplanes in that they can track a specific location in one place on the ground for a long time,” according to a military editorial in Xinhua, China’s state news agency. “Secondly, the space aerostat is very close to Earth, so whether it’s for inspection or film, the image will be very clear.”
Space balloons have a relatively close distance on the Earth’s surface and have the ability to remain fixed to one place, depending on the winds, to fill the surveillance environment from the satellites.
“You can find out who are the key individuals who are working in certain areas,” says Turpin, who is a member of the Hoover Institution, a Washington think tank. This means that Beijing can use high-resolution images accumulated over time to describe the routines and locations of important personnel who work in military areas.
I suspect that foreign countries gathering intelligence from the air runs both ways. Earlier this month, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the US of flying its surveillance vehicles “more than 10 times” in Chinese airspace over Xinjiang and Tibet – which the US denied.
“We’re not going to send spies into China — period,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told NPR in an interview.
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